Annually 1.2 million human beings are killed on the world's roads.
Most of thevictims are young, and prior to their crashes were healthy with expected normallife spans in normal health. Most are not drivers -- worldwide most victims are pedestrians. Injuries vastly outnumber fatalities. Traffic harm flows from manydecisions made at many levels, from individual road users to leaders of industryand government. The decisions are steeped in ethical issues, yet ethical issues arelargely ignored. Indeed, the only relevant paper I could find in the professionalliterature begins “Philosophers should begin to think more seriously about themany moral issues that arise from our frequent use of personal motor vehicles.”
Discussing any aspect of traffic should be based on knowledge of itscharacteristics. One cannot discuss, say, the ethics of a medical procedure unlessyou have knowledge of what condition it addresses, what alternative options areavailable, what are its risks of success, what are its risks of making the patientmore sick, and so on. The source of such knowledge is scientific inquiry, asreported in scientific literature. All too often traffic safety policy makers think that they are experts on traffic safety simply because they drive. They would beridiculed if they claimed expertise in pulmonology because they breathe. Anydiscussion of ethical issues in traffic safety must rest upon what is known fromscience about the subject.Traffic safety has been studied as a scientific subject for more than 70 years,with a large body of reliable information accumulated in many peer-reviewedtechnical journals. For example, a paper submitted to the
American Journal of Psychology
in August 1937 contains insights that are often ignored today, andreferences to even earlier work.
The body of scientific information issummarized in a book
that will be a key source for this article.Traffic safety research establishes that vehicle characteristics affect safety, but not nearly as much as roadway factors. Roadway factors do not affect safetynearly as much as human factors, especially the behavior of drivers.
It is the behavior of those whose lives are at stake in traffic that most influences risk intraffic. The least safe vehicle driven on the least safe road by some drivers posesfar less risk than the safest vehicle driven on the safest road by other drivers.While it is easy to say that drivers have a personal moral responsibility to notharm others, this ignores wider issues. Do drivers adequately understand thattheir normal driving poses an unreasonable threat to others? If not, why not?Have drivers been misinformed? If so, by whom, and for what purposes? Whilethe individual driver is the final agent, other institutions contribute hugely to howindividual drivers behave, and accordingly bear a major moral responsibility for traffic harm.
1Evans: Death in TrafficPublished by The Berkeley Electronic Press, 2008